Thursday, March 30, 2017

Culture is King

Guest post By Dr. Linda Sharkey:

“Our customers are important to us. Please stay on the line for the next available representative.”  The irony of this message sinks in after the first five minutes on hold. During the next five minutes, it becomes clear the values of the organization are aligned around cost savings—with the naive hope you’ll ignore their actions and believe their words.  Thankfully, there are organizations that are a delight to do business with, where employees go out of their way to help you—and help each other. This atmosphere makes you want to jump for joy and figure out how to clone the whole experience.


The difference in these two scenarios is culture. And cultural innovation should be a top priority for your company. No doubt you have probably experienced workplaces where
managers yelled at their teams. People keep their heads down to  avoid doing something wrong and, as a result, avoid doing something right. The culture of these places tamps down good ideas instead of bringing out the best in people.

What about your organization? Have you ever had someone tell you that your idea wasn’t good, and then share it as their own? Or say he wants creativity and innovation, only to criticize every new perspective?

Good ideas are regularly squashed, never to see the light of day. You get the sense your boss really does not want good ideas that don’t originate from him. So, as the employee, you stop and you do as you are told. You know the written rules of the company really are not true and that your place is to be quiet, follow orders, and survive if you can.

Here is a real example from a leader I have worked with that depicts the situation mentioned above. While I was coaching this leader, he vented that his staff lacked creativity. He said, “they never have any good ideas when I ask for them. They just look at me blankly. It’s so frustrating.”

When we interviewed his team the picture became clearer. He sent the message to his employees that he really didn’t want ideas from them. He only wanted his own ideas. They shared how they wasted lots of time and energy in coming up with new ideas just to see them go nowhere.

When the team feedback was shared with the leader he was shocked and did not believe it. He actually thought he had a lazy and uninspired staff. The staff definitely was not lazy or uninspired, just extremely frustrated. The boss was creating a

culture of low accountability and complacency and did not even know it.  This leader thought he valued others ideas but his behavior telegraphed he did not!  If this scenario sounds familiar to you as a leader or as a team member you are creating or working in a toxic culture.  Maybe you don’t have a boss yelling at you which is toxic enough but you have a boss who is holding you down!

Cultures that are toxic by their very nature are not innovative. People in these toxic organizations lay low, stay out of trouble, and rarely step forward with an innovative idea or recommendation. If you’re not purposely investing in a healthy culture, your business is already declining, whether you realize it or not.


Culture is rooted in values. Not the ones on the posters in the hallways but in the values that really shape the practices of the organization.

Notice the beautiful value statements on the walls: We are a team. We work to bring great solutions to our customers. Our people are our most important asset. Integrity is our core. But when you ask for help you get bounced around.

Bersin and Associates reviewed 6,000 companies on Glassdoor representing more than 2.2 million employees. They discovered, as did we, that culture and company values were the biggest driver of a company’s brand. Our own study of over 500 Fortune 1,000 companies showed that culture and values statistically had the greatest impact on the company’s brand and market performance, followed by coaching.

Culture is also key to a satisfied workforce. In another 2014 study by Glassdoor they uncovered what people really cared about. Culture and values. Regardless of income, Glassdoor found these two factors to be the top predictors of employee satisfaction.  And as people earned more, culture and values became even more important.  Today employees move around a lot more, and one key driver of why they come to your company is the values you represent and live.  For millennials, culture and values is far more powerful. It is the hidden underbelly that makes people want to work for you and stay.


We’ve all experienced the toxic leader and we know how demoralizing that can be.  But the worst part of having toxic leaders is that they drive a toxic culture.  Once a culture embeds toxic behaviors and values – it takes forever to change.   Interesting enough, you can change leaders quickly but cultures are so powerful that they suck the new leaders into quicksand of the old patterns and behaviors.    The new leaders either leave or they adapt.  Changing a toxic culture is hard, takes lots of time, energy and money that most organizations don’t have the luxury of today.


Here’s five actions you must take to be sure your culture shines in the eyes of employees and customers:

1.    Be crystal clear about your company’s core values and never deviate for financial gain.

2.    Ensure your leaders behave consistently according to those values and allow no bad apples.

3.    Hire and promote those that live the values – who you hire, promote and reward speaks volumes about you as a leader and what you really value.

4.    Get the facts - monitor and measure your culture closely to make sure it reflects the values.

5.    Tap into your customers and see your values through their eyes – does you brand live up to your customer commitments.

Dr. Linda Sharkey is the co-author of The Future-Proof Workplace (Wiley, 2017), and widely acknowledged as one of the world’s prominent thought leaders on global leadership development. At the foundation of Dr. Sharkey’s success are years of in-the-trenches experience with some of the world’s largest and most admired companies, including GE where she was a Senior HR Executive, building high-performance teams and developing talent that drives productivity and company growth. As Chief Talent Officer and V.P. People Development at Hewlett Packard, Dr. Sharkey was responsible for driving the company’s talent management initiatives, performance management processes career development, executive staffing, coaching, employee engagement, and diversity and inclusion efforts. 

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